With the increasingly important digital world, traditional, offline tools and approaches are becoming less and less sufficient and effective in shaping the public conversation, influencing the global or national public opinion, and obtaining trust.
As a part of reform that veers towards revolution in a domain well known for its adherence to norms, today’s diplomacy is also experiencing functional changes in terms of what strategic communications means in the digital environment. As we are witnessing lately, the emerging diplomatic virtual presence has become a significant part of public diplomacy and policy.
Today, the undeniable power of social media lies in its fundamental role of linking the public and political sphere as part of a worldwide conversation. It is notable that the general reason behind its effectiveness and the steep rise of adoption lie in the power of this environment of building strong brands and credibility. This certainly is today’s Zeitgeist and involves the systematic cultivation of the attempt to influence the public opinion with every single action and to boost social legitimacy, in a more and more interconnected world that seeks to turn individual gestures and actions into symbols.
However, does this fully explain why social media is becoming an emerging playground for sarcasm and open battlefield for a digital war of accusations and threats?
One of founders of today’s Twiplomacy phenomenon is the former US president, Donald Trump, who proved to be, for better or worse, one of the most vigorous and captivating presences on social media among world leaders. What is striking in this is the gradual increase in the adoption of the new diplomatic style, known as the Wolf-warrior approach, which gained prominence in the context of the COVID-19 crisis and Chinese presence in the social media. This approach, which originated from a Chinese patriotic movie, in which the main mission of the warrior is fighting back foreigners, is characterized by a more aggressive and assertive style of conducting foreign policy.
It is argued by some that this approach is not being adopted in order to display authoritarian tendencies and to project but rather it is more often adopted by Chinese diplomats as a defense response to the repeated attacks and accusations. It seemed to be the straw that broke the camel’s back. Drastic times call for drastic measures?
Either way, the US-China digital war leads to questioning the adequate behavioral approaches to addressing the continuous global power competition and diplomatic tensions. Assertive and offensive or proactive? What makes a wolf-warrior and where do we draw the line?
When credibility and national identity are under threat, assertive approaches seem to come in handy when defending one’s stance and strengthening confidence. We know it very well from the Chinese ancient wisdom: project strength when you are weak. This general principle applies to political stances and authority in advancing agendas, as well as preserving independence in hegemonic environments. However, when increased assertiveness is taken down the wrong road, the world ends up being divided into conflicting blocs. While proactiveness is certainly the adequate modus operandi to overcome such blockages and prevent escalating disputes from bouncing back, the line is certainly crossed when it reaches bullying and propaganda levels.
What is the smart and well-balanced dose of actions when interests and sovereignty come first? Assertiveness or smart power?
Proactiveness and high reliance on social media can also be channeled into advancing one’s objectives and consolidating strategic gains through smart use of power or through soft power. One of the best examples of this strategy is India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who’s presence on Twitter proves that, most of the time, the tone defines the effectiveness of the message and that balance is to be preferred to unhinged assertiveness. In the end, the art of persuasion is not limited to the right choice of words and actions here and now but also includes the challenging task of building trust in the long run.